Syed Hamid Albar vs. Hindraf on Indian marginalization

by H Lee

So Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar – in a decision, as he puts it, of self-sacrifice for the sake of protecting society – has banned Hindraf.

Similar home ministerial valour must have been present when he chose to detain Raja Petra, Teresa Kok, Tan Hoon Cheng and hundreds of others under the ISA.

Many Malaysians have expressed their outrage at the latest cruel and callous act of repression against a civil group which has highlighted the continuing plight of marginalised Malaysian Indians.

I would like to examine an aspect: the assertion that Malaysian Indians are not marginalised and are actually doing better than Bumiputera Malaysians, and thus, they have no grounds to feel
aggrieved, let alone angry. This is a cynical and specious claim.

We should first take note of the often ignored fact that the Malaysian Indian community is diverse, stratified and complex. Like any other.

Some are rich, some are part of the middle class, some are poor; some are posited in the mainstream, some are at the margins – and some are beyond the margins, trapped in urban squalor. The imperative question is whether the concerns of the Indian poor are being addressed by our
government’s attitudes and policies.

But the ruling regime would rather treat groups as monolithic blobs, then go about brandishing statistics to preempt debate – and stamp the lowly back into their place.

And so, in dismissing Hindraf’s cause, Syed Hamid invoked the reality of high proportions of Indians among registered legal professionals (21.4 percent) and among doctors (18.4 percent), and the ratio of Indian to Bumiputera household incomes, of… 1.20. That’s right, according to 2007 household income survey data, Indian households on average have 20 percent more income than Bumiputera households.

Is there something wrong with these figures? Why has the message of Hindraf resonated when official data paint opposing images of social mobility and nice averages?

There is no need to question the numbers, but every need to handle them responsibly, within context and in recognition of their limited scope. These bits of information provide no basis to conclude that all of the community is doing well and should therefore shut up and get on with their happy lives.

In fact, we do have evidence that Malaysians Indians are struggling as much as others to earn a decent living.

Averaging numbers

Of course there are many Indian lawyers and doctors – who’s not cognisant of that? But there are far more Indian labourers, factory workers, and others at the low reaches of the labour market.

It is highly probable that the household income of the Indian community is propped up by the high earnings of professionals and managers.

Meagre family incomes of displaced agricultural workers and urban elementary workers get shrouded in the process of averaging the incomes of all Indian families.

Consider some changes that have taken place in the past decade or so.

In 1995, 17.7 percent of employed Indians worked as agricultural labor, while 8.7 percent were in professional and technical occupations.

By 2005, only 4.9 percent of employed Indians were agricultural workers, but 20.1 percent worked as professionals and technicians.

Albeit rather cursorily, we gain some impression here of developments at two ends of the socio-economic hierarchy: the continuous urbanisation of a low-skilled former plantation workforce; a steadily growing presence in highly qualified jobs providing middle class living standards.

In what sort of jobs are most Indians working? Within communities, Indians registered the highest proportion of persons classified as production workers.

In 2005, 45.8 percent of employed Indians fell in this category, compared to 33.8 percent Chinese and 34.1 percent Bumiputera.

Due to the unfree state of information in this land, the most we can do with officially disclosed statistics is make deductions and inferences such as these.

We are still left with a knowledge gap.

However, a study by Branko Milanovic, a World Bank researcher and renowned scholar of global inequality, helps fill the void¹.

He analysed Malaysia’s household income data of 1997. This is from the national survey that the Statistics Department conducts twice in five years, from which all the inequality measurements we know are calculated.

One difference with the official accounts is that Milanovic focussed on individual earnings (wages, salaries and bonuses) instead of household income (the sum of household members’ earnings, property income and remittances). His findings are therefore more reflective of the earnings capacity of Malaysians in the labour market.

The housewife factor

The study analyses inequality more generally, but in the process finds something very striking: in 1997, the ratio of Indian to Bumiputera individual earnings was 0.98.

The official figure for Indian: Bumiputera household income was 1.41. In other words, the average earnings of individual Indians was basically the same as the average earnings of individual Bumiputera, even though average household incomes were quite unequal.

How might this be possible?

In terms of the gap between individual earnings inequality and household income inequality, we could postulate that combined earnings of Indians, especially in households with both spouses in professional jobs, raised their income to levels significantly higher than Bumiputera households.

This is a guess, and that’s as far as we can go with available data.

What’s not a guess is this objective report that average individual earnings of Indians and Bumiputeras were equal in 1997.

In 2007, with an Indian-to-Bumiputera household income ratio of 1.20, what might the inter-group earnings ratio look like? We don’t know, but it is more than likely that the ratio is less than 1.20.

It is possible that earnings are on average close to equal, or that Indian earnings are less than Bumiputera earnings.

Consider recent data on the distribution of employed persons by occupation.

In 2005, with 45.8 percent of the total employed Indians engaged as production workers and 4.9 percent as agricultural workers, it is plausible that average individual earnings are on par with the average among employed Bumiputera, of whom 34.1 percent are production workers and 15.2 percent are agricultural workers.

These two low-paying occupational groups account for about 50 percent of employed persons of both race groups.

Again, we won’t have a clear picture unless we have access to data and can engage in constructive discussion.

Hindraf has grounds

We have a clear enough picture, however, to affirm the plight of marginalised Indian households, whose tough circumstances in labour markets and poor living conditions are a shameful reality that cannot be garbed in middle-class statistics.

Hindraf has grounds for grievance – yes, even in the official data, if only we would take a more balanced and critical look.

And we could better understand this whole inequality thing, and devise fairer and more effective policies, if the ruling regime would release more information to our – um – knowledge society.

Resistance towards extending the same policies to members of the Indian community as currently provided to Bumiputera is partly predicated on official household income statistics.

But they give us an oversimplified and selective glimpse to a complex of problems.

It is high time to reevaluate the way we assess income and earnings and to aim assistance at the people who need or merit it most.

¹ Branko Milanovic (2006) “Inequality and Determinants of Earnings in Malaysia, 1984-97”, in the Asian Economic Journal, 20(2).

H LEE is a postgraduate student in economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

  1. #1 by khairi ali on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 11:24 am

    The reasoning premis is not the same. The government is talking on how to go about voicing their needs, while you are talking about the grieviences of hindraf. You should take the step of telling how hindraf should acted or reacted.

  2. #2 by Evenmind on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 11:50 am

    khairi , how else to voice their needs, do you want them to lick the boots of moronic UMNO members , who are ever so engrossed and overzealous in guarding the bumi equity .

  3. #3 by shortie kiasu on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 12:00 pm

    Poverty transcend racial boundary, and multiracial Malaysia, the poor is not just confined to one particular race.

    To address poverty, we have to take a holistic view across the whole population, and any police to address such should take this into consideration, and not be blinded by colour of the race.

    The poor is still the poor and they all need assistance to get into them to move on.

  4. #4 by aliew on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 12:25 pm

    after more than 50years, we are still fighting on the racial line….
    poverty recognize no races….
    the govt should concentrate to eradicate poverty..
    as the name “social” contract imply;it is not “racial” contract…

  5. #5 by Swarnabumi on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 12:50 pm

    The key trouble maker for the Malaysian Indians was the “honorable” DS Samyvellu .Over the 30 years he nipped all capable Indian leaders at the bud. Just like Saddam, he had a regime of thugs. Money meant for the Indians were channeled to his publicity campaign.
    Maika Holdings was a an investment by poor Indians. What moral right Samyvellu has to place his unqualified son to head this organization which for many Indians a beacon of hope out of poverty. Today Maika worths nothing. Companies started way after Maika are doing better and have gone global. The key factor for their success, they did not have a person like Samyvellu to interfere. Just become an office boys becomes an architect , it does not mean he is an entrepreneur. Educational Organizations formed using Indian money serves him and his cronies. Temples income are also manipulated by his conies.
    It was the Malaysian Indians karma to be lead by such incompetent person but the spell broke off on 8th March 2008. From now onwards the Malaysian Indians must be alert.

  6. #6 by monsterball on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 2:03 pm

    If the Red Indians from USA were knowledgeable about UMNO crooks…they many think the cowboys fork tongues were inherited from UMNO malays.
    Malaysians Indians have been neglected by MIC…for decades.
    And partly…they have themselves to be blamed…trusting Samy Vellu…so much….in the past.
    Realizations came so late…but better late than never.
    If Samy does not care….what do you expect idiot like Syed Albar…to say.

  7. #7 by PSM on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 2:16 pm

    That’s why we should be moving towards a “Need-based” instead of “Race-based” policies!
    By keeping to the NEP (Never Ending Policy), we will never get anywhere. Definately forget about Bangsa Malaysia!
    Yes, after 50 years we are still talking about the different Races. We should have “integrated” a long time ago!
    As long as UMNO is in power, we will never change!

  8. #8 by All For The Road on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 3:12 pm

    We all know too well that time and again Home Minister SHA has been dishing out unreasonable and sometimes horrendous reasons for banning Hindraf and its activities. No one in his right frame of mind ever accepts his arguments and deliberations. Banning Hindraf doesn’t solve the grievances and problems of the Indian community in the country. There should be avenues to tackle the issues head on to arrest such grievances!

  9. #9 by isahbiazhar on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 3:16 pm

    Statistics does not tell the true story.Ask the commercial banks as to the number of Malaysian Indians opening accounts with them?We should get a better picture?When Maika was given the RM100 million the Indians went to the banks and till today many have not even paid the sum borrowed.It was written off: a sad plight of the Indians.The opposite will the ASB which had reaped the best a Malay can think of.All Indians are hit hard to squat and will never stand straight.The rich Indians are the few and they do not help the Indians; Ananda Krishnan has any opinion.Syed Hamid is no statistician he is just another politician.He depends on the cooked figures and it will not show why the Indians are forever poor.Perhaps Samy Velloo should bring his wealth from outside to increase the pointers.

  10. #10 by All For The Road on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 3:31 pm

    Oops…….. there’s a correction in the last sentence. It should read:
    “There should be avenues to tackle the issues head on to address such grievances!” and NOT ‘to arrest’. Error is regretted.

  11. #11 by charlesbronsonjr on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 3:40 pm

    rich indians never help poor indians?why?sure there must me some reasons.why is it there is malay saying “if there is an indian and a snake,whack the indian first!!!” hindraf protest at the british embassy demanding this and that ,applying for british citizenship??? why not straight protesting at the indian embassy???recently hindraf forcing a chinese girl to apologise because on her blog she scolded the indians thieves for stealing her handphone,she been called racist by hindraf!why not hindraf sue their own god for making them the lowest caste of the caste?some parents are real dumb to teach their children to be kind to other races and they end up being taken advantage by other races!blame it on your own attitude hindraf!

  12. #12 by waterfrontcoolie on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 4:15 pm

    Given the very race biased situation at the moment, the society has much to gain by just concentrating on the very poor of the whole society. UMNO strives on the very basis of this arguement. RACE!!!! To me, the creation of HINDRAF was useful to gather one section of the Malaysian society as a start and to continue to harp on this line of thinking, the call for a MALAYSIAN SOCIETY will see no day-light! Sometime, I used to wonder as to why the very average Indian student strived so hard to become a doctor or lawyer? Is it family pressure? Community pressure? Or just to feel good?
    I also came across a ‘poor’ Indian girl who happened to fall in love with an Indian Doctor who was not acceptable by her family because of his caste in this 21st CENTURY! As a community, I believe Malaysian Indians have plenty to undo its own social problems. Just like the case of temple buildings, is it because certain temples are reserved only for certain kind of Indians???
    I always believe, changes must come from the inside FIRST!! not from external forces. In that sense looking at the mirror each morning for all of us is a good exercise!!

  13. #13 by drago2008 on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 7:35 pm

    And now they want to impose fatwa on yoga. This is as crazy as it can get with the mindset of these bigots. Is yoga going to be a threat to the nation? Yoga has been around for ages and if it is harmful we would all be undone by now, not only small-minded Malaysians but all the practitioners in other parts of the world.

    In his LawAsia speech, the Raja Muda of Perak, Raja Nazrin, has called on governments not to be discriminatory towards their citizens no matter what are their social status or ethnicity.

  14. #14 by undergrad2 on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 8:01 pm

    What has happened to the Hindraf attempt to involve the U.K. government in their cause?? Has this PR attempt fizzled out like the other attempts?

  15. #15 by Loh on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 8:19 pm

    ///the assertion that Malaysian Indians are not marginalised and are actually doing better than Bumiputera Malaysians///

    Yes when one compare only the rich Indians against the poor Malays, the statement appears to be correct. That is how UMNO government argues its case.

    The shares of listed companies are valued at par such as a CIMB share equals those of a penny stocks and EPU still insists that that is the way to value equity share capital. It is not that valuing public listed companies based on equity would naturally undervalue Malays” share of equity holding, it is an incorrect basis to value the net-worth of a company by the equity share capital. Transaction of stock market is not based on equity value but on the market price shares command in open market at the time of transaction.

    In the 1970s the government created entities to hold shares in trust for Malays, which could either be distributed to the Malays, or to keep them for their interests. These shares should count towards the share owned collectively by Malays. After all, the question of whether Malays have attained 30% ownership in the corporate sector, or whatever other races have acquired refer to collective ownership in the sense that the wealth are tallied up by race.

    Now the government has created a lot of government linked companies and they are no different from those institutions created in the 1970s where the ownership shares are held in trust for Malays. Indeed, the government would have no role in the corporate sector if they were not so intended. The government can choose an auspicious day if is so desires to say that these shares are given to Malays and equally for every Malay. Just like the government had restricted the movement of CLOB shares in the past it can place conditions on the sale of the shares so that their market value of the government linked companies would not have violent fluctuation. Since the shares when sold in the market would be based on market value, it is clear that these shares should be valued similarly in the computation of its share in the overall equity that Malays owned.

    The 30% target was to be achieved in 20 years as envisaged by Tun Razak in 1970. The idea was then that as soon as the Malays had crossed this threshold, they are said to have the foundation to carry out a free competition with anybody in the world. So, it is not a protective measure as though the Malays were an endangered business species. It was certainly not the intention of Tun Razak that the 30% should be maintained, and that having attained the qualification, it was the intention of the government to monitor the market to keep it at that level. Of course Tun Razak lived a short life, and TDM used NEP for his own agenda. Even out of power now, he still claimed that the time is not right, because he felt so, that NEP should remain.

    Tun Razak would not have said that 20 years was the time frame if he did not mean it. Tun Razak did not require NEP to stay in power. But the others who followed used it to gain the perpetual power as PM.

    NEP has gone beyond all the provisions of article 153 just so that Malays can reach the threshold of 30% ownership in coporate share capital. BN government would prove to the world that without interruption, it has not been achieved the target set 38 years ago. UMNO is happy to be called inefficient so long as UMNOputras retained the right to enrich themselves in the name of NEP. Instead of justifying why NEP should not be removed with facts and figures, UMNO has chosen not to reveal how the single most important figure on the target of NEP has been computed. Malaysians will recall that in December 2006, PM AAB and his deputy Najib promised that the methodology in the computation of Malays’ ownership of corporate share would be revealed soon. Twenty four months have passed, and the political future of AAB has taken a nose dive, but yet the EPU has not chosen the correct methodology in computing the single most important statistics to justify actions on the continuation of trying to attain the 30% target.

    We know BN government lies with statistics at every turn of any event.

  16. #16 by rubini on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 8:37 pm

    Everthing is secret.Data can be manufactured, skewed & repackaged to make the Indians are better than Malays on the average, therefor on the average, there are no poor Indians.
    Poor Indians are Hindraf illusion. Poor Chinese are a illusion. Poor orang asli is an illusion. Only Malays are POOR.

  17. #17 by ChinNA on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 8:40 pm

    hmmm undergrad just reminded. It is about 916. it is meant to be 916 in 2010? or is it suppose to be in 2009?

  18. #18 by ChinNA on Thursday, 30 October 2008 - 8:41 pm

    oops another typo – Is 916 suppose to be in 2008 or 2009 or 2010?

  19. #19 by chengho on Friday, 31 October 2008 - 8:51 am

    to legit Hindraf they have 2 options either join DAP or Gerakan
    since Dap is the state goverment of Penang a lots economic activities for Hindraf in Penang , Dap will agreed to disagreed not no marginalise Hindraf . Dap can give one of Hindraf leader as one of VP like tengku Aziz.

  20. #20 by khairi ali on Friday, 31 October 2008 - 9:26 am

    Hi everybody. I tell u all what. I hope S.Hamid read this. Next time, just make a short and simple reply. No explanations… because explanations may be hijacked from its roots and dumped it into emotional volcanoes.

  21. #21 by ktteokt on Saturday, 1 November 2008 - 3:29 pm

    So ask the government how much have the bumiputras benefitted after implementing the NEP for nearly 4 decades? How much improvement in living standards have they achieved? The NEP is a total failure simply because of ATTITUDE! These people prefer to be fed rather than feeding themselves, growing into PARASITES! And by doing so, it only further strengthen the other races in coping with their ability to live in a DISCRIMINATED environment, making the bumiputras even WEAKER! They have to and they made it! That is a fact!

    Just don’t understand why the government does not see this simple fact and logic!

  22. #22 by ktteokt on Saturday, 1 November 2008 - 3:31 pm

    And they are now claiming KETUANAN MELAYU! Same on them as TUANs who are “WEAKER” in spirit than their SUBJECTS!!!!!

  23. #23 by ktteokt on Saturday, 1 November 2008 - 10:50 pm

    I think I want to repeat this fable once more, the one about the “Grasshopper and the Ant”. Everyone who has gone to nursery would be very well-versed with this story.

    The grasshopper and the ant were neighbours. The grasshopper spent all summer dancing and merrying around while the ant worked very very hard to store up food for winter, which is six months away! The grasshopper teased the ant, saying he was stupid to work so hard when he could have enjoyed life like he did. But the ant just ignored him and carried on working.

    The cold and bitter winter finally arrived and guess what, the ant was happily staying home enjoying the food he has stored away but the lazy merry grasshopper had nothing to eat and finally died of hunger and cold.

    This situation is exactly happening in MALAYSIA – our Bolehland and it has been going on for decades! Just wondering when the cruel, bitter and cold winter is arriving, so we can see the grasshoppers perish!

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